On March 27, 1639, two young Jewish children, a brother and sister, were baptized in Rome, in a forced conversion presided over by none other than Pope Urban VIII.
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Converting the Jews was an important mission for the Catholic Church at this time – between 1614 and 1797, 1,158 baptisms of Jews are known to have taken place in Rome. But the circumstances under which this ceremony took place are especially disturbing, not least because the holy father was involved.
A detailed description of the events leading up to March 27, and the baptism itself, were recorded by Remedio Albani, who was at the time rector of the Rome House of the Catechumens, the residential institution established in 1543 for Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity.
‘Offer a child to the church’
According to Albani, Prospero di Tullio, a Roman Jew, had, earlier in 1639, been talking with a Dominican friar who was attached to the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The friar proposed to Tullio, the father of five children, that he offer one of them to the Church, and promised him that the child would be “well taken care of.” Not only that, he said that he could arrange to have the pope serve as godfather, holding the child during the ceremony.
Albani records that Tullio agreed to the suggestion, and that several witnesses could testify as much. Prospero di Tullio, however, immediately claimed that he had only been joking, and “that he would sooner have slaughtered them all than give one of them.” (Albani’s diary is quoted at length in “Forced Baptisms: Histories of Jews, Christians, and Converts in Papal Rome,” by Marina Caffiero, translated from Italian by Lydia G. Cochrane.)
The friar informed Prospero that it was too late, that he had given his promise and was now obligated to present a child for baptism. When the Jew demurred, the matter was transferred to the Holy Office, which investigated, before turning its findings over to Pope Urban. The pope confirmed that Tullio could not rescind his agreement, and ordered the seizure of one of his five children, to be chosen at random.
‘Howling like mad dogs’
Albani, from the House of the Catechumens, arrived at the family’s house in the Roman ghetto. When Prospero di Tullio refused to turn over a child, wrote Albani, “I ordered the court to take one in the cradle, where I saw it, and another child that I judged not to be older than six years of age.”
Once taken to the Catuchumens, the older child, Salamone, revealed, according to Albani, that he had wanted to become a Christian for a while, and that “he had once left the ghetto to come to the House of Catechumens and be a Christian, but that his father and uncle had caught up with him and brought him back and put him in a tall house where he had remained for some days.”
Neither Tullio nor his neighbors accepted the abduction of his children with equanimity. According to Albani, the Jews “began to howl like mad dogs and make demands, not lacking procurators and lawyers to help them they have nearly turned Rome upside down, totally denying the promise of the father.”
It’s hard to know just how severe the unrest was, but it did not stop the double baptism from going ahead, drawing a standing-room-only crowd to the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva on that Sunday.
Following the ceremony, in which the two children were “superbly dressed in white wool with silver and gold,” the boy Salomone, now renamed Urbano Urbani in honor of his papal godfather, was ridden on a white horse, “in triumph through the ghetto and the better part of Rome, with great rejoicing of the people, and confusion of the accursed and obstinate Hebraic rabble.” Salomone’s sister received the new name of Anna Urbani.